Thursday, May 21, 2020

Schools Without Classes, Learning Without Limits

One of my fondest memory during my final year of high school - in Sixth Form during STPM - was getting kicked out of History class and banned from attending future classes.

The teacher had every reason to exile me - not paying attention, and frequently dozing off in class.

My defence? None, aside from the fact that I'm easily bored, more productive studying on my own, and have been reading up on History since forever on stuff that's not even in the textbook...

You can even say I 'pleaded guilty'. I accepted my punishment. I stayed away from class. I didn't appeal.

In fact, I was happy being kicked out of class! I could save 4-5 hours a week. I didn't have to pretend I was listening (not that I was doing a good job anyway). I didn't have to sit through an absolutely bore of a teacher. Punishment? Hah! More like a reward! 😎

Sleep is for the strong
* * *

Unfortunately, my exile was rather 'short-lived'. My class teacher - of whom I respected - took me aside a few days later.

"Raphael," he sighed. "You have to say you're sorry. And that you'll behave in future. So that she'll let you back in."

Wait, what? Apologise? And give up the best thing that ever to happen to me in school?"

I responded politely: "It's fine. I did wrong. I deserve to be kicked out. Better I stay out, save her from more grief..."

My class teacher sighed again, louder this time. "Look, she's really hurt. She knows you're smart. But she's trying her best. Just say sorry. She'll let you back in. Just do it, okay? For me."


In the end, I gave in. I caught her outside of class, later that morning. I said sorry. With as much sincerity as I could muster. She smiled, and replied she would consider my 'request'.

WTF? Now the b**ch is playing hard to get... Fine, better for both of us then...

When she walked in for the next class (and as I was walking out), she declared that she had accepted my apology and request.

And that completed my humiliation. To be kicked out class, only to beg to be let in against my own will. It's like being kicked in the balls and begging to be kicked again (slightly higher this time, where it hurts even more)...

So why did I concede? She was hurt. My class teacher wanted me, a 'smart' student, to make her feel 'smart' too. I swallowed my pride, forced myself to stay awake during History class, and sacrificed my own optimal studying routine... just to make an insecure teacher feel good about herself.

See, I'm not so heartless after all...

* * *

So what's the moral of the story?

Two lessons. One for teachers, one for students.

Let's start with teachers - this one is easy.

Your students are just kids. Cut them some slack. It's fine to exert authority and enforce rules, but don't go overboard. Don't take things personally. Some students will like you, some students won't. You're not a superstar (even Taylor Swift can't please everyone). Your job is to make students learn, and not teach - there's a subtle but clear distinction. Teaching - following the syllabus, ticking boxes off the checklist - is NOT the priority. Making sure your students learn what they're supposed to learn (and maybe even more) is your ultimate goal - even if that means deviating from your prepared lesson plan, going the extra mile to help struggling students, and yes, loosening your grip on authority. Be flexible. Be creative. Be kind.

Moving on to students, here's where things get interesting. What I'm going to say next is true as a general rule, but especially so during this difficult period of COVID-19. To be specific, I'm focusing on university - that's what I'm more familiar with and qualified to talk about (as opposed, to say, early childhood education). Most universities have turned to e-learning, which is actually a great thing for students in many ways...

1. Class - Seriously, who actually enjoys attending lectures? Notes can be disseminated via email. Lecturers typically read out their Power Point slides almost in verbatim. Sure, there's the odd lecturer or two who gives inspiring talks and takes on challenging questions. Some super technical course can only be properly explained orally. But by and large, most lectures are redundant and dispensable. To teach a hall of 100+ students effectively, the lecture has to be 'dumbed down' for the average student to follow. Students ahead of the curve don't gain anything, but rather lose precious time and energy that could be better invested elsewhere. When I was student, I can read 4-5 times faster than what's being taught in class. The point is not to abolish lectures altogether, but to cut down to minimum (maybe an hour a week or two hours a fortnight).

2. Exams - No more final exams! Continuous assessment! YIPPIE! Standardised exams may be most effective in testing younger kids. But at university? No way an exam of 3-5 essay questions that barely scratches 10% of the syllabus can truly test the depth of one's knowledge and critical thinking. We're all aware of the flaws in rote learning, so let me share some personal anecdotes. In law school, drafting (assignments) and advocacy (mooting) also form part of the curriculum - the core practical skills of a lawyer. It is incredibly rare for a student to master all three different skill-sets. In fact, there's often minimal correlation between them - a First Class degree does not guarantee an excellent drafter or advocate. The skewed emphasis on exams invariably weakens students in the other two areas - simply because more time and energy are wasted on acing exams. So the reduction of exams due to social-distancing constraints is truly a game-changer. Grading is more balanced now.

3. Tutorials - Students prepare questions in advance. Some write answers down painstakingly, some just blabber stuff on top of their head. Tutors are instructed to grade students based on (a) attendance; and (b) quality of answers or contribution. The fact that the tutorial questions are recycled every year and students are smart enough to be nice to seniors makes this an even worse assessment method than exams. There are better ways to run tutorials - live or online. Smaller groups of 5-8 students. Switch things up - presentation, debates, or quizzes. If we're cutting down on lectures, then tutorial can be the platform for students to ask questions. Students can even be graded based on Q&A - a tutor can easily judge how much homework a student has done by the quality of questions. Tutorials should be fun and engaging. If the size is too large and time is too limited, tutors should go the extra mile by checking on written answers - especially for students lacking strong connectivity or courage.

I didn't get a Happy Teacher's Day card last week

* * *

Some students learn a lot during class, some don't. Some students suck in exams but excel in real practice, some vice versa.

Ultimately, the point is simple. Schools shouldn't be rigid. Learning is limitless.

As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, many teachers and students will struggle to keep up and be left behind. But in time, we will adapt. We have no choice. Education has changed - and will keep changing - faster than ever. This is not the new normal. This is how education should have been 10 years ago.

So what happened in History class for the rest of term? Nothing much. I got better in staying awake and faking attentiveness. She left me alone and kept teaching as passionately as she could. I scored an "A' for History in STPM, and got into law school - where I continued dozing away during lecture... 😴

Now, as a teacher, I care little about my students staying awake or liking me. So long as they keep learning and learning, my mission is done.

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